THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


This Land, This Land, This Land

Exhibiting visual narratives of Narragansett indigeneity and settler violence in the house Colonial Providence built.

by Isabel Guarnieri

Illustration by Leslie Benavides

published February 14, 2020


As a small crowd of us huddle on the cold stone staircase, Lynsea Montanari—a Narragansett visual artist—opens the night with a song. To honor the space we are in, she explains. As Lynsea starts to sing, the atrium of Providence City Hall seems to deepen her bellows, amplifying how her voice rises and falls. Your spirit is watching over me, I know you are in the sky, she sings in Narragansett three times: for the past, the present, and the future.

We were all gathered that evening, January 23, 2020, for the opening of an exhibit in the Gallery at Providence City Hall, entitled “All That You See Is(n’t) Yours.” The collaborative mixed-media installation features the work of two artists: Lynsea Montanari, a student at College Unbound from the Narragansett Tribe, and Anna Snyder, a white RISD alumna who spearheads projects in the intersection of public art and education in Providence. Their exhibit marks the inaugural ACT Public Art Residency, a partnership between Providence’s Department of Art, Culture, + Tourism (ACT) and the Providence City Archives. The project, according to the official press release, aims to “infuse artistic practices...into the operations of the city.” The residency is built for artists to work with and within the City Archives to craft a public art exhibition in response to a prompt.

This year, the ACT’s prompt was “Colonial Providence,” understood to begin with the founding of Providence in 1636. State-sponsored narratives of Colonial Providence tend to center around the figure of Roger Williams and the importance of religious freedom, as Rhode Island was the first colony with a secular government. But this focus obscures the displacement and massacre of Indigenous tribes that preceded Providence’s founding. The official press release states that Lynsea and Anna’s exhibit “interrogat[es] the City’s complex colonial legacies.” But the artists’ pieces, infused with their own identities and interests, do far more than that—they raise questions about the silences in the archive and expose the tensions inherent to telling a story about Native displacement in the seat of city power.

 

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When the ACT Public Art Residency program publicized a call for artists in late 2018, it caught Anna’s attention straight away. A graduate in printmaking from RISD, she recently went back to school to pursue a degree in History at the University of Rhode Island. She had just taken a whole semester’s worth of courses about the history of Colonial Rhode Island and knew that background would be invaluable in the archive. The Providence City Archives on the fifth floor of City Hall holds a collection of manuscripts, maps, blueprints, and images with an emphasis on the municipal government that span from its 1636 founding to the present, according to the city website. Something troubled Anna about the call, even made her hesitant to apply—the prompt made no mention of indigenous history, and required no engagement with Native voices. Realizing she was not in the position to channel that identity herself, Anna reached out to the Director of the Tomaquag Museum, Loren Spears, with whom she’d worked with in the past, to see if the Museum would partner with her during the residency. Spears redirected Anna to her niece, 24-year-old visual artist and Narragansett language activist Lynsea Montanari.

Together, Anna and Lynsea faced a daunting task: use the City Archives, a source of historical knowledge shaped by the structures of power that continue to marginalize Narragansett and other Native peoples, to create an exhibit that would represent Colonial Providence in all of its violence and complexity.

For six months, Anna spent about 15 to 20 hours a week in the City Archives, combing through town meeting minutes and city logs. She struggled to make sense of the dull records—not sure yet what narrative she was trying to tell. But again and again, Anna came across an obsession with borders and demarcating space—map after hand-drawn map scrawled with “Stephen Dexter’s land” or “Joseph Williams’ land.” She was stunned by the banality of these entries, the “violence made boring” that was concealed in layers of city bureaucracy. “It just looked like a city entry,” Anna told me. “But what it actually means is that someone is dying, or being removed from their source of food.” Suddenly, it all became so clear. Lynsea and Anna agreed on an overarching theme to frame the exhibit: property, and the juxtaposition between Indigenous concepts of collective ownership and the colonial violence of land theft and appropriation.   

Lynsea approached the prompt quite differently. She brought her grandmother to the archives to help guide her research, but found it did not have the information she was looking for. Lynsea was most interested in how to represent not just a period of history, but a people—especially Indigenous women, children, and elders. Rather than what she called Anna’s search for “concretes,” or, documents related to land and materials, Lynsea was looking for indigenous voices, which the City Archives lacked. “We have been so dehumanized throughout history,” Lynsea told me, stepping away from the gallery opening, “I felt that what I needed to share was stories.”

The archive is not a neutral collection of historical records. Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s seminal work “Silencing the Past” examines the power relations inherent in the production of historical knowledge, interrogating how monumental events like the Haitian Revolution have been erased from popular history. According to Trouillot, every historical narrative contains a bundle of silences. This silencing occurs at four stages: the making of sources, the making of archives, the making of narrative, and the making of what we call “history”—or what is granted “official” retrospective significance. And these silences build on each other. A historical narrative skews when certain voices or populations are excluded in the creation of archives. Entire histories can go unwritten, and for many, forgotten.

What Lynsea encountered in the City Archives’ 40,000 cubic feet of records was a gaping hole, an absence that mirrors the silencing of Native history and voices in museums, school curricula, and history textbooks across the United States. To make up for the silence, Lynsea turned to other sources, conducting oral histories with her grandmother, who passed away while research for the exhibit was underway. Oral histories are a research method often employed by queer, Black and feminist scholars to move beyond the limits of the current archive and re-center personal narratives that have been marginalized from mainstream historical discourse. This in-family archive supplemented the research Lynsea’s family took on collectively using sources like religious texts, allowing her to explore themes like spirituality, family, and the concept of generations.

 

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“All That You See Is(n’t) Yours” is divided in three sections across the second floor of City Hall. While the residency was shared, Lynsea and Anna created most pieces individually to explore distinct themes based on their archival sources; Anna relying on material from the white colonist archives, and Lynsea using her family and other research to delve into Native history and spirituality. The two collaborated on one piece, in which Lynsea painted a colorful watercolor of a birch forest over which Anna laid black-and-white colonial houses. The piece, “A Cluster of Colonial Houses,” visualizes settler colonists’ encroachment on Native land, but is also representative of larger clashes in the exhibit: white and Native, monochrome and color, archive and stories, nature and property.

In one corner of the atrium hang Lynsea’s three portraits exploring Indigenous and colonist spirituality. Two are in vivid color and portray distinct interpretations of the Manitou, a spirit that inhabits all life force. One of the paintings, entitled “Manitou,” depicts a face carved into a tree trunk, surrounded by a ring of pink and blue flowers. The painting recalls the historical practice of carving Manitou statues into trees and utensils, a way, according to the exhibit guide, “of manifesting the spiritual world into our physical world.” Lynsea imbues the painting’s details with the memory of her grandmother, using a holly tree that shares her name and carving the names of her grandmother’s children into its trunk. Speaking at the exhibit opening, Lynsea makes constant reference to her grandmother: “grandmothers are what ground us in our community.” Lynsea’s art-making practice is rooted in love­­, fusing personal details into larger Native imagery to portray herself and her family as part of a community that has been and still is here.

On the opposite side of the room, Anna and Lynsea’s pieces are staged against each other to highlight distinct conceptions of private and collective ownership.Anna portrays the takeover of Native land in large, shallow wooden boxes hanging on the wall that start open and unbound, but become more segmented. The sections in the boxes create little cubbies, where Anna placed hand-painted pigs and models of colonial infrastructure like fences. Pigs became a point of fascination for Anna throughout the project—another object she kept encountering in the archive that seemed mundane but was symbolic of how settler colonists thought they were entering an untouched world. Brought by colonists from Europe, pigs were destructive forces on Native land, she explained, destroying crops and food-stores and causing long periods of starvation over the winter months. For Lynsea, the symbol of the pigs also resonated as one of careless violence. Speaking at the exhibit opening, she offered, “Everyone cares about the big things. But when you talk about capturing a life, small things like pigs can be so harmful.”  I think about what Anna told me about the “violence made boring'' she encountered in the archive, how it reduced Native land displacement to counting livestock, or marking borders. In her piece, she transforms the mundane into sinister characters - the fences appear large and industrial, the pigs almost demonic in black-and-white. Here, the pigs stand in for the colonists: leaping and bounding over uncharted land that gets split up as they multiply.

Enclosed in a glass case in front of Anna’s box of works, Lynsea has crafted seven hubbub bowls—one for her and each of her siblings—used for the traditional gambling game of hubbub. According to the exhibit guide, the face of each bowl contains distinct imagery from Narragansett stories, whether that be the stars of Orion’s Belt or the crow, that are inspired by each of her sibling’s personalities and demonstrate how “we bring spirituality into everything we do.” Seven is more symbolic than just the number of children in Lynsea’s family. Rather, she explains that she has been taught to make an impact long after she is gone, to always think of the next seven generations. The physicality of the bowls—a hint of movement and play—also ground Colonial Providence as linked to her lived experience and present rather than an intangible history. In an exhibit setting, the bowls are also a reclamation of how Native peoples’ everyday objects are co-opted into museum spaces as items for display to be gazed upon and explained. By recreating hubbub bowls as artistic pieces, and making them explicitly personal, Lynsea’s work has a clear audience: her family and her community. The symbolism of the hubbub game also directly contradicts conceptions of private land ownership. As detailed in an essay by Brown Ph.D Candidate Alexandra Peck about the game’s history among Native tribes in Rhode Island, hubbub players gambled valuable belongings—such as wampum beads and longhouses, using the game to redistribute wealth and resources across the community. Staged against Anna’s pigs and fences, the juxtaposition between family and individual, collective and private, becomes even more striking.

 

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In my interviews with Anna and Lynsea, and my time at the exhibit opening, I feel a recurring sense of discomfort about the exhibit site itself. How can an exhibit about settler violence against Native peoples ignore the history of the very land it sits on? The official press release and exhibit guide do not mention this gap—another silence that builds on thousands of others.

I am not the only one that notices this discrepancy. When Lynsea stands to speak at the gallery opening, she welcomes the audience by addressing the tension directly. “Thank you all for coming today to the land of the Narragansett people,” Lynsea states. “I know we don’t talk about it a lot, but here and everywhere that you are walking is Indigenous land, not only in Rhode Island but in America.” The group of about twenty people gathered on the staircase—friends, family, and the City officials that had helped bring the exhibit together—nod in acknowledgement, many exclaiming loudly in support. I sense a somberness in the air—a mix of gratitude and pride with an acknowledgement of where we are, and what art can speak to but never resolve.

Public art is free and accessible, a model that often works to counter the institutional obstacles posed by art museums, which are often expensive and perceived as spaces reserved for the elite. According to Providence’s “Art in City Life Plan,” dedicated to increasing public art and encouraging collaboration between artists and the city, the plan aims to shape Providence’s visual identity, improve quality of life for every resident, and strengthen community ties. However, as a venue for a public art residency, City Hall presents numerous challenges. As Anna pointed out to me, Providence’s City Hall is only open on weekdays from 8:30 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon, excluding an audience that works any day job. Moreover, many communities are not comfortable voluntarily walking into the seat of city authority. Lynsea’s relationship to City Hall is even more complicated. “This space is not special to me.” She affirms, “This was Indigenous land; this was all Indigenous land.” An exhibit about Native land expropriation in City Hall cannot and does not even pretend that it aims to change this reality.

There are many people who have the privilege of not thinking about history; colonists have not taken their land, erased their languages, or enslaved their ancestors. History has, in fact, enriched their lives in a million invisible ways and built the foundation of the position in the world they occupy today. History, to many, can be categorized and segmented off­­—delineating a certain period of time that constitutes “Colonial Providence” as if that differs from the Providence we live in today. I wonder if public art functioning within the institution of the city and the state can ever reconcile this. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang write in, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” the language of decolonizing schools and art museums obscures that actual decolonization necessitates the physical and literal repatriation of Indigenous land and life.

I ask both Lynsea and Anna about where they see hope in the exhibit, or how they tried to imbue it in the work, perhaps because I want so badly to find it too. And it is there, especially in the stories of intergenerational love and community that Lynsea paints and sculpts, a sense of reclaiming history and making Native art for and by Native people. Telling stories of Indigenous history and present affirms and, for outsiders, acts as an essential reminder that Native people are still here. “It is so difficult to talk about how you are oppressed today when people don’t even know you exist,” Lynsea tells me with a joking frustration. “Our stories are still untold. Just speaking them into truth is activism.” For Anna, the exhibit explains history in a way that she hopes will translate into a call to action, especially in relation to the global climate crisis in which indigenous activists have been on the forefront of demanding an overhaul in global climate policy. “In order to survive the climate crisis, we need to adopt how Native people interact with the earth and planet,” she explains, “Indigenous knowledge is the future if we are smart enough to listen.” Anna hopes that the audience of the exhibit will make the connection between history, the art, and how its significance touches now and extends into the future. But there is so much that remains unsaid. In order to start to fill these silences, Native people need to be brought, intentionally and continuously, to the forefront of constructing nuanced and complete histories.

After both Lynsea and Anna speak, and give their thanks, Lynsea’s family—mother, father, aunt, and siblings—gather on stage. As Lynsea’s father beats a drum, the eight of them sing a song that he explains means We are still here. Together, they sing it through three times: past, present, and future.

 

ISABEL GUARNIERI ‘20 thinks you should go see this exhibit for yourself.

 

All That You See Is(n’t) Yours is on view at Providence City Hall until March 16th.